Interoperability best practices: the 4G future of public safety

The opportunities 4G presents allows agencies to move forward from outdated technologies and concepts toward new user-friendly, efficient and interoperable communications

By Tim Dees and Michelle Perin

Technology projects in large, well-funded agencies tend to get the most attention.

With 80 percent of the law enforcement agencies having 25 or fewer officers, and most fire service organizations being small volunteer units, many have trouble relating to efforts on the larger scale, especially if their operating area is relatively isolated and not the primary marketing target for system upgrades and rollouts.

Mobile data
Odessa, Texas, has more than 25 police officers, but they otherwise have to contend with the limitations that come with not being a big city or a suburb of one. This hasn't stopped them from trying to leverage 4G networks to their advantage.

The Odessa Police Department is trying to move forward with a project to port their mobile computer-aided dispatch (CAD) functions to 4G, along with transmission of evidence photos and video from the field directly to police headquarters.

Rod Hennessey, Public Safety Systems Administrator for the city, is wrestling with multiple issues ranging from inadequate network coverage to hardware configuration problems.

"4G is built out through much of Odessa, but we still don't have 100 percent coverage," Hennessey told us.

"Some officers can send and receive data, but those in other parts of the city can't. We have to have a solution that will work wherever our people are working." The 3G network that does cover the city has insufficient bandwidth for all the tasks they intend to port there.

There is also a problem with the add-on "aircard" data modem devices most wireless carriers support for mobile data.

"One of the problems we've had with patrol car configurations is with the form factor of the consumer products we have. Many rely on Bluetooth or a similar low-power wireless network for device connectivity," Hennessey said.

"We always seem to be asking, 'Where can we stick this to get connectivity and still have a secure mount?' We need tethered devices with hardwired connections to ensure security and be compliant with the law enforcement database networks we access."

Hennessey would prefer devices installed internally on the computers, so they can't be removed by a thief or come loose if the patrol vehicle has to leave the pavement.

The city is considering establishing its own dedicated, private wireless network for the city, with the idea of possibly partnering with other cities in the area. If the commercial wireless carriers build out their 4G network more extensively, this might not be necessary.

Using the commercial infrastructure is also a more attractive option if the dedicated nationwide interoperable broadband network managed by FirstNet is not available soon enough to meet the city's needs.

Streaming video
"One of our ultimate goals is to provide streaming video from field units to the police station and other mobile units. If an officer might be in trouble, we want to be able to access his patrol car camera remotely and get him the assistance he needs. The bandwidth we have available now won't support this."

The promise of 4G data pipes and a dedicated network would meet these needs, but they might not be available within a reasonable time frame.

The opportunities 4G presents allows agencies to move forward from outdated technologies and concepts towards new, user-friendly, efficient, and interoperable communications. Whether during a small scale event, such as a house fire, or if a natural or man-made disaster hits a community, 4G gives first responders the capability to be there working together.

"In a major event, you need to link not just fire and police," explained Chip Jewell, Maryland State Firemen's Association representative on the State Interoperability Executive Committee.

"You need to look at what other partner agencies you need." Emergencies might require the assistance of the streets department for a snow plow or the water department to help shut off a water main. "You need to look at the total picture."

"Interoperability gives you the ability to talk to who you want to talk to when you need to talk and not when you don't need to. If we can talk to those individuals that are part of our support agencies, that is truly utilizing interoperability to the greatest extent."

Mutual aid
Most fire departments rely on mutual aid to meet fire and medical needs of their district. "Communications is one of the major issues on any scene," explained Jewell.

"If we send a task force to another county, they're out of our system. If you can't communicate with the people who have the boots on the ground, you're putting them in jeopardy."

With 4G, interoperability will not only help during local level mutual aid but on a national scale increasing the safety of all our first responders. South Lane County (OR) Fire & Rescue Chief Dean Creech agrees.

"I believe tracking systems for MCA and personnel accountability would greatly enhance safety and coordinate large scale EMS response. For command and control, knowing where your people and patients are is half the battle. The other advantage is less duplication of effort and better resource utilization."

With many agencies struggling to make ends meet, the cost-efficient opportunities of 4G makes sense not only from a safety standpoint but from a financial one as well.

Future possibilities
The 4G network offers a vast array of possibilities. From lightweight flexible battery packs that slip into bunker gear, to hands-free radios small enough to fit into an SCBA, the future adaption of equipment using nationwide broadband is infinite and limited only to the imagination.

Just as cell phones have gotten smaller and more compact while at the same time packing more and more capabilities into their slim frames, public safety equipment will become even more user-friendly, safer and hardier.

One major benefit of 4G will be the ability for ambulance crews to do patient assessments by streaming data to hospital emergency personnel prior to arrival.

"Most data suggests the earlier the interventions occur the better the patient outcome and the lower the cost to treat," explained Creech. "If a doctor is able to 'see' a patient, advanced interventions could be initiated and supervised."

During a large scale event with numerous casualties and multiple scenes, 4G provides the ability to triage patients and manage the disaster efficiently and with the best possible outcomes.

"Next generation interoperability means use of all new technologies, such as GPS, Interactive Video, live imagery and video streaming," Creech stated.

"All of the items from an EMS perspective can potentially improve patient care, outcome, and probably lower health care costs for the county."

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